"My first eating disorder, I was about 14," says Deborah Wingert, head faculty at Manhattan Youth Ballet. "I remember carefully limiting everything I ate. I'd eat three quarters of the piece of toast and not the last quarter." Then she'd skip lunch, but eat dinner normally. Her parents never suspected she had a problem. "It was very secretive, and I felt in control," she says. "I couldn't change the shape of my legs, but I could lose weight."
She was a student at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet at the time, and nervous about being in peak shape for a performance. Once she made it through the show, she went back to eating normally
Then, five years into her career with New York City Ballet, she was being passed over for coveted roles and found herself once again grasping for control. “You're not in charge of your career," she says. “Someone else is deciding what you dance and who you're dancing with." Her anorexia returned. Within a few months, she was hooked on laxatives and making herself throw up. A year later, with her weight fluctuating and her progress as a performer flatlining, she sought help from the company dietitian, who successfully coached her back to healthy eating habits.
Today, she says she's lucky she has a healthy daughter, a successful marriage and a positive relationship with food. From her vantage point at age 51, it's easier to see that being a successful dancer is more about being healthy and strong than being thin. She counts herself fortunate that she can still dance and demonstrate nearly full-out. “I spent way too much time loathing my body," she says. “I wish I would have not made such a big deal of it."
Now, as a teacher, Wingert prioritizes passing on a healthier lifestyle to her students. She encourages dancers to talk to staff members if they're concerned a classmate isn't eating, and she keeps a careful eye out for any dancer who may be unhappy or struggling with (it's usually—but not always—“her") weight.
Wingert maintains that her eating disorder was driven by her own quest for control and perfection rather than teachers or directors telling her to slim down. But she does remember that her artistic director once told her she'd “never looked better" at a time that she recalls being at her thinnest. The truth is the culture of ballet still reveres thinness, and it's a challenge to convince dancers it is not the highest goal of physical conditioning.
Ballet teachers often face an uphill battle in promoting a positive body image and healthy eating habits. But like Wingert, you can lead by example. Emily Harrison, an Atlanta Ballet teacher, former company member and registered dietitian, says that the goal is to prevent eating disorders from happening in the first place.
Use the right language.
Most teachers today wouldn't dream of calling students names or using language like “flabby" and “soft" to describe their bodies. But you can go beyond that and use intentionally positive language. When Wingert talks about her goals for her dancers, she repeats words like “beautiful," “healthy" and “vital." She says she wants them to be “strong" and “capable." This is the language she uses in the studio, too. “The words we use are the words students are going to hear," she says. You can ensure they're repeatedly hearing positive language.
Technique can make magic.
Nobody has the truly “perfect" ballet body. “Principal dancers are always complaining their leg doesn't go high enough," says Wingert. Whenever possible, try shifting the focus away from what the body can't do to what dancers can make it do—or make it look like it's doing—with good technique. “I talk a lot about the smoke and mirrors in ballet," Wingert says. “How to work within your own parameters to make a leg look more turned out," or make the arms look longer by unfurling the port de bras through shoulders, elbows and then wrists.
Prove that you eat regular meals.
Harrison says when she teaches at Atlanta Ballet, she always brings snacks for herself, like an apple or carrot sticks. Then, during a break, she'll eat it in front of the students. She'll sometimes eat her lunch in the hallway around them, too, just to show that eating is part of her schedule. “I think we need to model good behavior," she says.
Steer dancers toward regular meals.
During a long block of classes, Harrison suggests you pause and ask dancers, “Have you eaten in the last three hours?" If they haven't, tell them to grab a bite—like a handful of almonds or a granola bar. And don't be afraid to be stern, saying, “I need to see every one of you eating or drinking something." Harrison also urges teachers to allow water or sports drinks in the studio.
Keep an open door.
Let students know you're open to talking about their food concerns—either personal or if they're worried about a classmate. Dancers are invited to stop by the Manhattan Youth Ballet office anytime. It's a scary thing approaching a teacher to talk about a classmate, but Wingert says the word has gotten around that faculty can be trusted with sensitive information. “Students usually come in a pair or trio and say they have something they need to share, and they ask for anonymity," she says. “Our school has created that feeling of safety."
Talk privately about body concerns.
Don't draw attention to a dancer's body changes in front of others, even to praise it, says Harrison. If you are concerned about a dancer—if she drops a concerning amount of weight over a few weeks or a couple months, especially if it causes her to lose strength and stamina during class, or if other students have begun talking about it, speak with the dancer privately in a positive way. “Always start with, 'I care about you and I want you to be healthy,'" Harrison says. Then, “'I've noticed your body has changed over the last few months, and here's why I am concerned.'"
If you think the student is at the point of being in danger—significant weight loss, skin color has changed, extra body-hair growth—call in the parents, Harrison says. Wingert says they tend to respond in one of two ways: “Either they'll be in complete denial or they'll start to sob and say, 'We don't know what to do.'" In the cases where a parent doesn't think there's a problem, Wingert will ask that the dancer get a doctor's clearance before continuing classes.
Know where dancers can get help.
If a student confides in you about an eating disorder or you meet with a student's parents because you're concerned, you'll need to know where to send them for help. Every studio needs a list of referrals, says Harrison. “Who's the school counselor? Who's the physician?" Have those answers, and make sure you find a registered dietitian with experience treating dancers. DT
Registered dietitian Emily Harrison provides a list of nutritional resources and information about eating disorders on her website, dancernutrition.com/resources.